head of the springs. A series of suits was started, involving roads and the right to navigate at the head of the springs.
There was much maneuvering in and out of the courts. A cut-off road was built from the main highway to Paradise Park. Where-upon Shorty Davidson (his partner was in the hospital at the time) built a cut-off to the cut-off.
Meanwhile, Ray & Davidson, looking ahead, had acquired more and more property to the south, east and north.
When the first Paradise cut-off was closed by the county, a new one was built. After that was in use for a while, it was discovered that it, too, crossed Ray & Davidson property. So it, too, was closed.
Meanwhile, the navigation suit – which was making history – was decided in favor of Ray & Davidson by Federal District Judge alexander Akerman. He ruled that the rights of navigation did not extend to the head of the springs. But this was carried to the U. S. Supreme Court, where the ruling was reversed.
But the battle was long and exhausting, and in 1932 M. R. Porter sold Paradise Park to Ray & Davidson.
While staunchly defending their interests in courts and commissions, Ray & Davidson made stronger and stronger bids for the more visitors. They were nice to the people of Ocala. They were nice to the people of Gainesville. They were nice to the people from all around, they staged barbecues. Fish fries. Beauty contests. They did everything they could think of to attract attention, and frequently entertained the gentlemen of the press.
At these parties, Shorty was ever his jovial self. He helped prepare the hush puppies and the fish. While Carl Ray stood in the background, Shorty made short, regular folks talks. The editors loved it. Shorty was good copy.
To spread the name of Silver Springs, he and Charles Thomas made trips up the country to hammer “See Silver Springs” arrows on trees – as far north as Virginia. Most states outlawed this type of highway signs, so Silver Springs began putting up billboards. And they tied in with the safety theme – “Drive Safely and See Silver Springs.”
One day in 1928, Shorty Davidson was driving from Fort Myers to Tampa. As southbound cars passed hi, he began to wonder, “Have they seen Silver Springs?”
Thus, the auto bumper strip idea was born. And Silver Springs workers began typing “See Silver Springs” on the bumpers of every car that drove up. It was inexpensive – and enormously effective.
Another important event had happened at Silver Springs on November 20, 1929, though probably no one realized at the time just how important it would be. On that date, a stocky young fellow named Ross Allen drove up from Winter Haven. He was fresh out of Stetson University. He loved snakes, and he wanted a chance to show off. He had $5 in his pocket.
Before he started exhibiting, he had a taxidermy shop. He sold a few alligators and snakes to get some operating capital.
Ray & Davidson set aside a small space for him, and he began performing for the fascinated visitors, who were few at first.
Then, awed, they came in greater and greater numbers. Ross Allen started with a handful of snakes and alligators. He began to acquire more and more of them. He milked the snakes. Robert Ripley came along and told the world about him. So Ross Allen milked his way to fame along with Silver Springs. Snakes bit him—in the next twenty years he was bitten ten times, but he was never deterred.
The same year that Ross Allen arrived there was another significant event. A two-reel movie entitled “Crystal Champions” was made, featuring Johnny Weissmuller, world’s champion swimmer, Pete desJardins, (of Jacksonville) Helen Meany and Martha Norelius.
The movie was a hit, and movie-makers started flocking to Silver Springs. Weissmuller returned three times to make “Tarzan” movies. Other movie-makers came.
By 1932, more thousands of people were coming to the Springs (there were about 150,000 visitors that year). Glass bottom boats were electrically driven for the first time – and by then, six of them were in operation.
Another blow came with the national banking holiday in March, 1933. But Silver Springs accepted checks (“we lost $4 on that, “says Shorty Davidson). Change was given on travelers’ checks.
The depression hit bottom in 1933 and 1934. But Ray & Davidson kept on sending out signs and bumper strips, kept making friends, kept entertaining the press and the movies and the radio people.
Ray and Davidson also established a policy of helping other attractions—something which was almost unheard of. Years later, Dick Pope, operator of Cypress Gardens, paid high tribute to Ray & Davidson for their assistance in the early Thirties. For struggling attractions, he said, the situation was “horrible,” it was “chaos.” But Ray & Davidson told people about Cypress Gardens and other attractions. What’s good for one is good for all, they reasoned.
In 1935, about 200,000 people visited the Springs, including such notables as Hugh Johnson, celebrated head of NRA; roger Babson, famed economist; Governor Alf Landon of Kansas. Silver Springs was vieing with Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon for attention.
In 1938, Ray & Davidson acquired a new publicity director named Peter Schaal. He was tall, dark-haired, and knew what was wanted—more visitors. So he sent out stories, pictures, souvenirs. Before long, he was deluged with proposals, and had to follow just the right course for best results at least cost.
Came World War II, and the attractions of Florida, having come through the depression to better days, faced a new crisis. With gasoline rationing, many of them closed.
Not Ray & Davidson. They figured out the answers, as they had before when other crises arrived.
During the first three months of gasoline rationing, they lost money steadily. Federal agents stopped people driving to the Springs to find out how they happened to have gas for such a trip.
Then came another idea.
Shorty Davidson, ross Allen, Bob Cobb the Cowboy, the Seminole Indians who came to the Springs each winter went up to Camp Blanding. They put on shows for the soldiers. And commanding officers began to send truckloads of soldiers down to Silver Springs.
They found it good Policy, for no whiskey was sold, and the troops returned to camp in fine form. On one wartime holiday, the larger part of 18,000 troops swarmed around Silver Springs. During the war, Silver Springs entertained about 200,000 military men (who were sent on boat rides for half price).
In 1945 Gregory Peck made a movie, “the Yearling,” based on Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings famous story.
End of the war brought an unparalleled number of visitors to Silver Springs. Where as once a good year had been to attract about 100,000 people, by 1949 the number had reached 800,000. By 1953 it was topping the million mark.
Beginning in 1946 more and more shops were installed at the Springs. On the nearby highway, luxurious tourist courts and restaurants were built.
On more and more billboards went eye-catching Silver Springs signs. In 1952, a remarkable help-the-other-fellow campaign began which brought new awards to Ray & Davidson. On each billboard Silver Springs recommended another attraction, which got half the space.
In the advertising world, it created a sensation.
And the Silver Springs family, which numbered w. C. Ray, W. M. Davidson and ten associates in 1924, now numbered about 150 people.
The partners of old were beginning to take things easier, to let a new generation step in.
The two sons of W. C. Ray were taking an active part, W. C Ray, Jr., --known as Buck—serving as assistant general manager; Bill Blue Ray handling public relations under Peter Schaal.
Looking back over the 29 years, W. C. Ray said: “The success of Silver Springs is due largely to plenty of hard work, operating a morally clean place, showing our visitors all possible courtesies and a well-thought-out and managed advertising campaign.”
Looking forward, W. M. Davidson (by now a colonel on the staff of two governors, and much reduced in weight) said:
“Florida is the greatest state in the Union. God has given us everything. We have the greatest shoreline. We have great fishing. Hunting is good. Our sunshine is the greatest blessing. We have green grass and gardens in the winter. We are a haven for the world. Anybody investing in Florida property can not help but profit from it. Silver Springs is a baby in the cradle. Some day glass bottom boats will be out, and there will be, instead, glass walkways. Florida will attract more and more people who get pensions. Florida’s future is just beginning. And Silver Springs will have its share of that future.”